Dem 51
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GOP 49
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Tories May Go 0-for-3 Tomorrow

We are, of course, very interested in the fate of right-wing populist movements worldwide. And tomorrow, the good people of the United Kingdom (well, some of them at least) will head to the polls to choose new members of Parliament for seats that have been vacated. There are three by-elections, and we have three regular correspondents from the U.K., so each of them agreed to preview one of the three elections. Take it away:

  1. G.S. in Basingstoke, England, UK: A glance at the demographics of Uxbridge and South Ruislip might lead you to believe it a British bellwether—located in the southeast of England (broadly trending Conservative) and on the western outskirts of London (which broadly trends Labour), the seat has a high diversity (trending Labour) and a lower unemployment and higher median wage than the country at large (Conservative). It contains a major British university (Labour) yet voted solidly for Brexit in 2016 (Conservative). All these things said, the seat in its current iteration (the boundaries were redefined in 2010) has never been held by any party other than the Tories; indeed, even in its previous iteration, it has been held by a Conservative/Conservative leaning party since 1885 with two exceptions from 1945-59 and 1959-66.

    The reason for the particular interest in this election is twofold. Firstly, and most obviously, the seat was formerly held by deposed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson; Johnson was elected to the seat in 2015 with an outright majority of the votes and a 25 point gap to the nearest challenger; in 2017's election the gap narrowed by a significant margin (though Johnson still commanded a majority), then expanded in the 2019 "Get Brexit Done" general election. As such, the taking of this seat would represent a significant coup for the Labour party hoping to win the next general election.

    The second reason concerns the occasionally quixotic and localized nature of the British electoral system: London's (Labour) Mayor, Sadiq Khan, has been on something of a crusade to improve London's environment, and has proposed that London's Ultra Low Emissions Zone—this is a zone within which vehicles above certain CO2 emissions must pay a substantial daily charge—will expand widely to the outer reaches of London, including Uxbridge itself. Needless to say, this has aggravated some of the locals with larger vehicles (at this point, the author cannot help but muse how courageous a U.S. politician would be to propose a daily tax for driving an SUV into the center of, say, Houston) and has directly pitted Mayor Khan against the prospective Labour MP, Danny Beales, who opposes the charge. Kier Starmer, the Labour leader and aspirant Prime Minister, is bravely tackling the issue by avoiding taking sides. At least two candidates for the seat are standing as single-issue contestants on the ULEZ issue; though single-issue candidates have won before, their chances are about as high as perennial candidate Count Binface, who is also standing for the seat.

    As (V) and (Z) have occasionally observed, political betting might be illegal in the U.S., but not here; the most generous current odds on Labour taking this seat are 1/14 (93.3%), making this the nearest certainty to "flip" of the three seats you will read about today. What this presages for the narrative, the country and the next election, we will see.

  2. A.B. in Lichfield, England, UK: Selby and Ainsty should, superficially at least, be the easiest of the three 20 July by-election seats for the Conservative Party to hold. Former MP Nigel Adams won the seat in 2019 with 60% of the vote. Staunch Brexiteer Adams had held the seat continuously since its creation in its current form in 2010, and increased his share of the vote in each of the three subsequent elections. The seat currently contains swathes of rural North Yorkshire, as well as the towns of Tadcaster and Selby. The North Yorkshire local council has been held almost continuously by the Conservatives since its creation in 1973 (except for a brief period under Tony Blair, when no party held a majority), and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's own rural North Yorkshire constituency of Richmond is less than an hour's drive away (Sunak won just over 63% of the vote in the 2019 election). And yet, as I write this, The Labour Party is favored to win a seat it lost in 2019 by over 20,000 votes. So, what happened?

    Part of it is the general unpopularity of the Conservative Party at national level. British by-elections are well-known for being used by voters to give unpopular national governments a kicking. Adams' full-throated support for the discredited Boris Johnson may also be a factor; he was the only MP to immediately resign from Parliament alongside Johnson in support of the former PM. Finally, Labour's position in the constituency isn't necessarily as hopeless as the 2019 result may indicate. Selby is a former coal mining area that was active well into the 1990s, and was an important center of smaller ship building into the same decade (Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior II began life as a Selby-built fishing vessel). These were both industries that traditionally supported Labour, and the town remains one of the few North Yorkshire areas to reliably elect Labour councillors to the county council. Even in the relatively recent past, the current seat's Selby predecessor was held by Labour from 1997 through 2010. Now, the predecessor seat included the southern suburbs of York, including the city's university (which is why I was voting in the old Selby seat in 2001, as a recently completed PhD student), and less of the neighboring rural areas, but despite the 2010 change in seat boundaries a fair number of commuters to the neighboring—and much less conservative—cities of York and Leeds still live in the constituency.

    It's this combination of factors that make a Labour win viable in Selby and Ainsty, though make no mistake... it would still be a seismic result. A Labour win would make this the sixth-largest numerical majority ever overturned in a by-election, and easily the largest majority ever overturned by the Labour Party. Labour's current record is overturning a majority of 14,600 in the 1990 Mid-Staffordshire by-election, and majorities of more than 20,000 have only been overcome on five previous occasions (four of them by the smaller Liberal Democrats, who often do better in by-elections than in national elections). Perhaps even more significantly, since the formation of the modern Conservative Party by Robert Peel in 1834, the Tories have never lost three by-elections on a single day, but then, there's always space for new political firsts.

  3. S.T. in Worcestershire, England, UK: The constituency of Somerton and Frome, in the southwest of England, is a deceptive seat, starting with its name. It's not a partnership of equals. Frome, in the northeast of the seat, is a medium-sized town of about 25,000 souls, originally a center for the woollen industry, and with many handsome period buildings. It also has a counter-cultural reputation, named a few years ago as the 6th coolest town in the country. Over the last 50 years, during which time its population has doubled, it has also become a commuting base to the cities of Bath and Bristol. By contrast, Somerton barely has a population of 5,000. It is one of the, if not the, smallest communities to be named in any English constituency title. In fact, the majority of the electorate live neither in Somerton or Frome but in (even smaller) towns, villages and hamlets, scattered through a very rural constituency, one that notably has few major roads going through it.

    So, a safe Conservative seat? Its history suggests otherwise. When it was created in 1983, it quickly showed itself to be, like several of its fellows in the county of Somerset, Conservative but with a significant centrist vote. In the 1992 general election, a new Liberal Democrat candidate, local optician and county councillor David Heath, halved the conservative majority and in 1997 did even better, winning the seat in a 130-vote landslide. Heath also won the next three contests, but his majority never exceeded 2,000. Improbably, this seat was possibly the most consistently marginal in England for 15 years.

    Heath decided to retire before the 2015 general election, which he would almost certainly have lost anyway, given the collapse of his party's vote in that year. Since then, the Conservative David Warburton has held the seat by large margins, of around 20,000. Warburton has now resigned following a lengthy and still incomplete investigation into his conduct. He has admitted taking cocaine, though only after drinking lots of strong Japanese whisky (an interesting defense!). He denies further claims of sexually harassing three women.

    Given the current travails of the Conservative party, no by-election is welcome, least of all one arising in such unfortunate circumstances. The Liberal Democrats remain in (a distant) second place, but last year gained control of Somerset Council: They were clearly ahead in the wards making up Somerton and Frome. Given the seat's history, they are probably the main threat to the incumbent party. Their ability to seize the seat will depend on the 18% of voters who supported the Labour and Green parties in 2019. They might be willing to vote tactically. The Conservatives will be hoping/praying they do not, but local elections in much of England this May suggested voters were only too willing to support whoever was perceived as most likely to beat the Tories.

Thanks, chaps! We'll have a follow-up report once the elections are concluded. (Z)

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